I would like to preface this blog post by clarifying that I am not a doctor, OB-GYN, etc, and am simply sharing my own experiences. If you are having medical issues, please go see a licensed practitioner with the necessary qualifications/credentials to help you.
In today’s blog, I want to talk about something that I’ve been dealing with recently. I started typing this up today in the midst of bawling my eyes out on my couch, and I was like, “Hey. Writing helps calm me down, and I want to share my experience with everyone, so let’s start now.”
For a bit of background on myself, I’ve been active my whole life. I grew up a dancer, and up until the end of my junior year of high school, I was at dance (whether rehearsing myself or teaching classes) well over 20 hours per week. When I stopped dancing, I began my “fitness journey” – lifting weights, learning about nutrition, learning about setting up a proper training program, etc. In April of 2014, I started competing in bikini. Between April of 2014 and June of 2016, I competed in 12 NPC shows… Which is a heavy amount of competing for anyone. If you’re unfamiliar with bikini/bodybuilding competitions, after a period of growing muscle and keeping food intake high, you enter contest prep, where you diet down to extremely low bodyfat levels and step on stage to display muscle definition, balance, symmetry, etc. Here’s a bit of a breakdown of the last 3 years of my life, which will become important later on in this post:
- January – June 2014: Contest prep (2 shows, one in April and one in June)
- June – August 2014: Reverse dieting (i.e. eating more food, gaining weight, reducing cardio, etc)
- August – November 2014: Contest prep (3 shows, two in October and one in November)
- Nov. ’14 – March 2015: Reverse dieting (i.e. eating more food, gaining weight, reducing cardio, etc)
- March – July 2015: Contest prep (3 shows, two in June and one in July)
- July – October 2015: Reverse dieting (i.e. eating more food, gaining weight, reducing cardio, etc)
- October ’15 – June 2016: Contest prep (4 shows, one in March, one in April, one in May, one in June)
- June – October 2016: Reverse dieting (i.e. eating more food, gaining weight, reducing cardio, etc)
- October ’16 – Beginning of Jan. 2017: Contest prep for the Bodybuilding.com Spokesmodel search
- Jan. – now (June ’17): Trying to figure out what the heck is going on with my body
As you can see here, I’ve spent the vast majority of my time the last 3 years, particularly the last half of 2015/first half of 2016, dieting down, losing weight, doing more cardio, etc in order to step on stage. Weight loss isn’t inherently bad (we live in a country where obesity is an epidemic, and weight loss/weight loss maintenance can improve many people’s overall health), however, as many of us competitors (myself included) have stated time and time again: contest prep is extreme dieting. Weight loss for general health vs. weight loss to step on a bodybuilding stage are two very different things. Regardless of your goal when embarking on a weight loss program, there are some things that happen internally as a result of our primal instincts/survival mechanisms. This is a link to an excellent article regarding some of the adaptations to weight loss in terms of hormones and metabolism: Metabolic adaptations to weight loss: implications for the athlete.
While it wasn’t discussed at length in this paper, it’s very important to note that reproductive hormones are also included in these adaptations. Think about it from a survival aspect. Our bodies don’t know the difference between being in an actual starvation state where food sources are scarce vs. just trying to look good in a bikini. When you’re energy deprived, especially for longer periods of time, your body starts trying to conserve as much energy as possible, shutting down “less important” systems first. In this case, the reproductive system (especially for females) is the first to go “dormant.” Once again, think about it from a survival aspect: if you were starving, your body’s last priority is going to be nourishing a fetus – it needs to take care of you first! A lot of times, what this looks like for many women, is the loss of their monthly period. This isn’t exclusive to competitive bodybuilding, either. This can happen to women across all sports, but is definitely very common in things like bodybuilding, gymnastics, dance, endurance athletes, etc. Amenorrhea (absence of the menstrual cycle) is a component of the Female Athlete Triad, a condition among female athletes characterized by low energy availability, amenorrhea, and low bone density/mass. Many a time, including in my own experience with MULTIPLE DIFFERENT OB-GYNs, doctors pass of amenorrhea in active, otherwise healthy individuals. I’ve heard everything from, “Oh, it’s normal, it’s just because you’re active,” to, “It’s nothing to worry about, but if it makes you feel better we can put you on birth control,” to, “I’m not concerned – you seem fine.” Excuse me? WHAT!?!? My reproductive system isn’t functioning normally, but you’re telling me that I’m “fine”? Let me get this straight – the propensity for low bone density, increased risk for cardiovascular disease, risk of infertility, etc, aren’t concerning to you? Ladies, if you learn one thing from this post, regardless of if you’re athletic or not, let it be this: lack of a menstrual cycle may be “common,” but that makes it neither normal or okay. I don’t know what’s more frustrating – the fact that I’ve been told this numerous times (I think the first time I ever heard this from a doctor, I was around 16 years old and had gone without a cycle for about 6 months), or the fact that I’ve taken it at face value and said, “Okay. They’re the professional here, I should listen.” I will say that I fully understand why menstrual cycles go away for many women when they compete in bodybuilding (and there ARE some women who don’t lose their cycle at all, no matter how lean they get!), but your regular cycle should return once your prep is over, you’ve re-gained some weight, you’ve decreased activity levels, and you increase your calories (all of which are things that you should do after competing). The red flag here, and what has become the biggest red flag for me and the reason for this post, is when you do all of the above, and *crickets* …still no cycle.
Given enough time and the proper conditions, things like metabolic rate and hormones come back to baseline after a dieting phase. This involves the above-mentioned post-contest recovery period, where cardio is decreased, calorie intake is increased, and some weight is regained. It may also behoove you, if you have the resources, to have bloodwork done immediately post-contest to see where your levels are at, and then get those same hormones re-tested (in the same conditions, i.e. fasted and ideally after a rest day) a few months later. I’ve often gone through private testing agencies like LabCorp if my doctor won’t order the labs. I experienced this hormonal recovery after my last contest season – I had my hormones tested right after my season ended (June), where my estradiol (a form of estrogen) and T3 (a thyroid hormone) were a bit on the low end, but not completely in the tank. A few months later (September), I had another panel done, and bam! Everything was back to normal! Yay! My metabolism had seemingly recovered, I was maintaining a relatively lean physique on higher calories than ever before (2500-2600 per day), and overall, life was great.
Then I decided I wanted to diet down for the Bodybuilding.com Spokesmodel Search. For the first 2-3 weeks of the diet, things were going fairly well. No intense fatigue, food wasn’t too low, weight was slowly decreasing, etc. All of a sudden, after no change to diet, cardio, or anything, my weight started fluctuating like crazy. I would wake up one morning at 132lbs, then be 140lbs the next morning. And this. Kept. Happening. As a result, we (meaning my coach and I) had to push just as hard as we had to for my regular contest prep without getting near contest lean. I was beyond concerned, so I scheduled an appointment with my OB-GYN. They scheduled an ultrasound to make sure there wasn’t anything wrong with my ovaries – completely normal. Redid bloodwork – (supposedly) completely normal. I was told I could do the Provera challenge (taking synthetic progesterone for ~10 days to try to get a withdrawal bleed, something I had to do multiple times to no avail when I was a teenager dealing with this problem). I am extremely averse to pumping my system with exogenous hormones, since that doesn’t do anything to actually fix the problem, so I left the doctor’s office after a teary-eyed appointment where I was told, once again, that I’m fine (and yes, these doctors were given a full synopsis of my history, my current athletic pursuits, etc). Cue January, after the Spokesmodel Search ended. I figured I wouldn’t respond as well as I did last June to the post-contest diet and would regain weight more quickly. (For reference, I started dieting for the search at around 134-135lbs, and after 8 weeks, got down to 132-133lbs). At that point, I had let go of my hope of staying within 15lbs of stage weight (I ended my season in June ~120lbs, but I also never want to be that tiny again, so good riddance to 120lb Em Dunc). Even still, January-March I still maintained a fairly athletic look to my physique and was able to work food up relatively high (2400 Calories/day). Then mid-March rolls around. The crazy weight fluctuations start again, and this time, they bring along symptoms of depression – lack of desire to do things I enjoy, disturbed sleep, intense fatigue, frightening thoughts, etc. There were a lot of days where I would barely move from the couch, and my strength training sessions were mediocre at best. I knew something was wrong, and I wanted to get to the bottom of it.
I’ve had a feeling that, due to my rigorous competing the last few years, my body as a whole simply needs rest. I also have had a feeling that my reproductive system in particular is basically hiding from me. I explained this a bit in a recent YouTube video that I’ve felt an intense disconnect from my body – I feel like a stranger living in here sometimes. It’s honestly one of the worst feelings I’ve ever felt. So the past few months especially, my primary goal has been to try to nurture my body to the best of my ability and listen as best I can to it, while also researching potential remedies to the underlying problem. I started off with a more naturopathic approach – acupuncture and herbal tonics. I went to see an acupuncturist once a week, and drank herbal blends created by my acupuncturist daily (if you’re in Louisville, KY and are in search for acupuncture/Chinese medicine, I highly recommend Meridian). About a month later, I traveled to Europe and obviously couldn’t lug around jars of herbal tonic across the ocean. Also, I won’t lie – it was expensive. I may try to start it up again soon, because I do fee like it helped, but the cost was really difficult to keep up with. When I returned from Europe in April, the depression symptoms/weight gain/overall “wHaT iS gOiNg On” in my body. The weight gain, while definitely was distributed all over, was also very much so focused in my midsection – I’ve almost always had a fairly slim waist, so this fat redistribution was really concerning. Abdominal fat storage is often a sign of hormonal problems of some sort, so this was a big red flag on the hormones side of things. I also noticed that I was started to develop some acne on my back (around my posterior delts/scapulae). I was diagnosed with hormonal acne on my face when I was a junior in high school, but I’ve never once had to deal with body acne of any kind.
So, here I am, not having done anything with my diet or training to have caused this (I’m a very regimented person, so I have a normal and consistent diet and training schedule), and I’m gaining weight, feeling like the opposite of my normal self, developing acne, and grasping at straws for answers. My first initial thought was, “Maybe it’s my thyroid.” A lot of times hypothyroidism results in depression-like symptoms. I got all of the necessary things tested for my thyroid, and nope. Totally normal. Back to the drawing board. Since I was still without a period, I decided to say, “Screw what my doctors have said, this isn’t normal.” and started digging. I simply started by researching amenorrhea. One day, by some act of God and Google, I came across this article on MindBodyGreen. It was a story from one very active, very stress prone (waaaait a minute, did I write this article? Lol) woman who had been dealing with what was called Hypothalamic Amenorrhea, or HA. I was like, “I can relate to all of this fairly well… Let’s keep digging.” In my searches, I came across the book No Period, Now What? After watching one of the author’s videos and reading into HA a bit more, I decided to give it a read. This thing is like 500 pages of information regarding fertility, HA, PCOS, causes, treatments, etc. After reading it, I felt like I was on my way to understanding more about what was going on, but wasn’t quite there yet.
Based on my readings in the book, there were some blood tests that may help identify HA and/or PCOS (you can have both at the same time, or you may have HA that’s misdiagnosed as PCOS, or you may just have PCOS). So, I decided to try going to a different OB-GYN. This new doctor was a big teddy bear of a guy. I told him my symptoms, and FOR ONCE, someone said that what I was experiencing wasn’t normal (you don’t say…). He said that it would be better to see someone who specializes in endocrinology, so he referred me to their reproductive endocrinologist. About 2.5-3 weeks later, I went in to see him. Told him about what was going on, lack of cycle for x amount of time even though I’m eating enough and am not underweight, etc. He was beginning to tell me that I was normal, totally fine, this happens a lot to active individuals especially since my sport requires me getting really lean, etc, until I told him about the unexplained, unhealthy weight gain. That piqued his interests. He said I may have PCOS. The action plan was this: he prescribed me a low-dose estrogen/progestin pill to begin taking and ordered bloodwork that day to check out a few things. He also recommended that I “keep my lifestyle factors in check,” which basically meant to keep my diet in check and exercise more. It took a few very deep breaths for me to not scream at him, “I’M A COMPETITIVE BODYBUILDER SIR PLEASE FIND SOMEONE WITH THEIR DIET AND TRAINING MORE ‘IN CHECK’ THAN ME,” but I kept my composure.
About a week later, he called me back and told me that my FSH/LH balance from the blood they collected was indicative of PCOS (testosterone was within normal range). So, according to my doctor, and seemingly explained by my symptoms, I have PCOS, or Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. In my own head/heart, I think it could be a combination of PCOS and HA combined, but I’m also really new to this and am simply happy to just have a starting point.
I’m not going to lie – the past 8 1/2 months (since trying to cut down for the Spokesmodel Search basically), I’ve felt so lost. I’ve felt like a failure. Like I mentioned before, I’ve felt like a stranger in my own body. And I don’t ever want to focus on the negative, because I receive infinitely more positive support than I do negative, but the online response has also been really hard to deal with. I’ve been accused of being on PEDs (performance enhancing drugs), of having filler put in my cheeks (I HAVE had filler put in my lips before, I will never lie about that. But I’ve been putting a lot of weight on in my face, and that’s really hard to hide), of having an eating disorder (a common symptom of bulimia is swollen cheeks due to swollen salivary glands from vomiting), it runs the gamut. I do my best to not pay attention to all of that dumb stuff, and it’s normally a lot easier to ignore when I’m chugging along with my normal happy self, but I’ve found it’s a lot easier for negativity to get to you when you’re already feeling negativity inside of yourself. And it’s really hard to sit there and have accusations thrown when you yourself don’t know what’s wrong. I digress.
Regardless of any minuscule amount of negativity, I am actually really grateful for this experience. Does it suck? Yeah, a lot. But it’s an opportunity. It’s a chance for me to love and grow with my body/mind/spirit in new ways. It’s an exercise in trust, which is something I struggle with. It’s an opportunity for me to be vulnerable with my audience – I’m normally really good at honesty, but I tend to wait until I’ve “fixed” things to talk about them fully, rather than when I’m knee deep wading around in it. After I posted the video I linked above, I was shocked with how many supportive comments and messages came flooding in, along with how many comments I received from other women dealing with the same thing. Here I was, thinking I was so alone in this, when in actuality, I am surrounded by other women going through what I’m going through. It’s also been an exercise in faith – I’m a control freak, and this is something that has been so far out of my control that it feels like it’s on a whole other planet. This is the ultimate example of, “Let go and let God.” So that’s what I’m doing.
From here, I do want to document my journey with this whole thing. I want to be a resource for other women who are struggling and are searching for their own path to wellness. Let me preface this by saying that what works for me may not work for you! But, above all, I hope to be a testament through my own journey to never stop searching for your healthy, and put that first. I also don’t want anyone to interpret this and think that competitive bodybuilding will automatically give you crazy internal health problems – but I’m also not saying that extreme dieting doesn’t contribute to health problems, because it definitely does. I absolutely love competitive bodybuilding, and I fully intend on doing in again someday if my body allows and my mind feels right, but that’s far from my focal point right now. Right now, my emphasis is on healing me, from the inside out. There will be stumbles and falls, peaks and valleys, good times and bad times, but I’ve dealt with all of those things in various capacities before, so I can do it again. Thank you guys for coming along on this journey with me, for supporting me, and giving me way more positive voices to listen to than negative ones <3. We’re in this together! *cue High School Musical, particularly Zac Efron, but this day in age’s Zac Efron, not HSM Zac Efron*